St. John’s Church has a bold, colorful history almost 200 years in the making. Our frontier town church, established in 1829, has seen numerous disastrous events through the years. From the death of our first rector in a steamship explosion in 1838; the complete destruction by fire of our newly built, uninsured church in 1879; and unrest during the Civil Rights era, as well as the split in our church in 2005—St. John’s has always been resilient. Completing a new structure in 1881, we soon added a rectory and later, an educational building and parish hall.
Around the time we built our new church, we began welcoming the community through our doors for a traditional church bazaar, known as the St. John’s Market. It continues today and is one of our favorite annual events. In 1915, we began adding chimes to our stately bell tower. St. John’s is one of just a few churches across the country to use hand-rung tower bells.
Click to learn more about St. John’s Tower Bells
St. John’s 14 hand-rung tower bells have been ringing in downtown Tallahassee since 1915, in times of joy and remembrance. The bells, which can be heard a mile away, are collectively known as the Lewis Chime and are each named for a saint. They range in weight from 220 to 2,050 pounds. The original St. John’s church, a wooden structure built in 1837, had a single tower bell. The current brick building was completed in 1881 and a bell tower was added in 1884. In 1915, the church received a generous gift of the 10 bell chimes from Miss Mary S. Lewis, the aunt of vestryman George E. Lewis. She requested that the chimes be installed in a tower at the south entrance of the church. To accommodate these bells, significant structural work involved replacement of the original smaller tower with the taller one that is currently there. Two additional bells were added in 1975 and two more in 1991. Fewer than 40 bell towers in North America use hand-rung bells. The St. John’s Tower Bell Guild was established in 1975 and continues today.
In 1952, we established a mission in the Church of the Holy Comforter and in 1968 elected a woman to the vestry. St. John’s has been through three major renovations to our National Register of Historic Places property. We also established the Lively Café, built a columbarium with a memory garden, and expanded our Outreach programs to Cuba and Ecuador.
We serve meals to the homeless at the Kearney Center. We are connected with our local Jewish community through a joint teaching series, and we offer our campus for Tallahassee Bach Parley, Community Chorus, and Village Square events. Our front yard, stone steps, and hot chocolate are available each year for spectators at the annual Christmas parade. And we are always eager to shepherd classes of schoolchildren around our historic building, where they marvel at the baptismal font that survived the church fire, and the organ on which “Jingle Bells” was composed.
Our rectors over the years have offered varied viewpoints and strengths, and most were outstanding leaders who led us to growth and progress. St. John’s has a proud legacy, and we look forward to continuing our progress and living out our Baptismal Covenant.
Click to learn more about the “Jingle Bells Organ”
Located in St. John’s Carter Chapel, the “Jingle Bells Organ” has a long and entertaining history. The one-manual-and-pedal chamber organ was built in London in 1837, for Christ Church Episcopal, Savannah. It was subsequently used by several other parishes, and then by the Savannah Unitarian Society (1857-58). In 1857, Unitarian’s organist, James L. Pierpoint, published “A One-horse Open Sleigh” and performed it at a Sunday school concert, although it’s rumored Pierpont wrote the song in 1850. Nonetheless, the name “Jingle Bells” has since been associated with this instrument. It was donated to the FSU School of Music in the 1940s, and somehow ended up in storage in the basement of the Kuersteiner Music Building. An FSU doctoral student discovered, restored, and documented the organ in 1976. In 2000, the instrument found its home in St. John’s Carter Chapel, where it remains on permanent loan from the FSU College of Music.